Get within a half-block radius of Gabriel Tenorio’s studio in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, and you won’t just hear him hard at work—you will feel it.
Most mornings, there’s a vibration from the tensile testing Tenorio performs in his cramped garage as he cuts, spools, and stretches metal and plastic wires to fashion strings for all sorts of strummed instruments. Thick, bumpy cords to withstand the resonant plunks of an acoustic bass. A taut combo of nickel and steel capable of sustaining a Fender Telecaster’s wah-wah squeals. The nylon threads that make a ukulele ring loud and bright. Slinky-like strings for the trademark shimmy of a Django-style jazz guitar.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
“Down the street is a plumber—he’s who everyone goes to when there’s a leak,” says Tenorio, his round-frame glasses rising up and down as he gets more animated. “Over there is the gardener. Me? I’m the neighborhood string maker.”
Skinny but with muscly forearms, the 49-year-old Tenorio stretches out a thin steel wire on his workbench. He twists each end with a foot-controlled metal winch and plucks a perfect high E note. He then tries to make a thicker A string with a phosphor bronze overlay.
“This is the core,” he explains. “You loop others around it. You know what they call a core wire in Spanish? El alma.”
Tenorio rubs the string with beeswax, hits it with a heat pen, and feels the finished product. He frowns.
“This is not a happy string,” he declares, inviting me to run the entire length between my thumb and index finger. Seems fine to me until I catch an almost imperceptible bump about three-quarters of the way through.
“See?” Tenorio declares triumphantly. “I can’t use it. I feel and hear, like, ghost notes that almost no one else can!”
He’s one of the last manual guitar-string makers left in California, in a profession that never had many members to begin with and counts even fewer today, when big companies can bust out 1,000 strings in an hour. A good day for Tenorio is 150.
His handiwork goes for four to five times more than mass-produced strings—a full set of six can run more than $100—but for Tenorio and his customers, this is no luxury item. “I’m making a tool,” he says. “When you’re not thinking about breaking a string, you’re thinking about playing and creating. Most guitarists have to change strings every night. Mine last for fucking ever.”
Born in El Paso, Tenorio has spent most of his life in Boyle Heights in the world of Chicano cultural activism, moonlighting as a teacher, a filmmaker, a composer, and even a nonprofit director. A skilled guitarist, he was a músico for hire during the 1990s and 2000s for multiple iconic Chicano bands, from the refried Elvis tribute El Vez to jarocho rock luminaries Quetzal. Tenorio’s own neo-traditional band, Domingo Siete, toured the world.
Early in his career, he made a pilgrimage to Santa Barbara to meet Francisco González, a Los Lobos founder who left the band before they became big to focus on string making. Under González, Tenorio learned to search for material wherever he could find it, from industrial fibers in L.A.’s Fashion District to fishing line at bait-and-tackle shops.
“Francisco always said he wanted musicians to have a job,” Tenorio says of his mentor. “Old methods aren’t worth keeping just because they’re old. He’d keep vintage strings for us to see not as a reminder of the good old days, but how shitty musicians from the past had it!”
González ended up selling his business, Guadalupe Custom Strings, to Tenorio and a friend, who continues to run it in East Los Angeles. In 2016, Tenorio created his own namesake company to focus on electric guitars, although he does the occasional custom job on traditional instruments ranging from the balalaika to the tololoche, a Mexican-style upright bass.
As much as Tenorio loves his craft, he knows he has only a couple of years left. His hands constantly ache—a mason jar of marijuana-laced ointment sits above his workbench—and he’s developing tendinitis. He does have an assistant, but frets about whether anyone will want to take over the business.
As for mass-producing his strings to make more money and keep doing the work once his hands give out—for Tenorio, that’s out of the question. He recites some advice that legendary guitar maker Bob Taylor gave him: “ ‘You can do like me and make millions and never touch a guitar, or you can be the most expensive guy, but then be able to help people who really need it.’ ”
Tenorio starts on another string. “It’s all about the latter, man.”•